Last month, Starbucks’s and USA Today’s “Race Together” initiative launched with the article “Why Race Together? Because Diversity Matters.” It begins:
Racial diversity is the story of America, our triumphs as well as our faults. Yet racial inequality is not a topic we readily discuss. It’s time to start. Conversation has the power to change hearts and minds. At Starbucks, we’ve seen this firsthand. Recently, as racially charged events unfolded across our country, we felt a responsibility to act….
In forums from Oakland to New York to Chicago, as well as St. Louis, people shared personal experiences and ideas about how to move our country forward.
It may not be mentioned in this article, but I believe a murder in Milwaukee last April was the critical incident that triggered Starbucks’s consciousness on race relations in America. A year ago this month, Starbucks was directly involved in a case where a Milwaukee police officer fatally shot an unarmed mentally ill man fourteen times. What role did Starbucks play in this fourteen shot tragedy?
On April 30 of last year, barista Kelly Brandmeyer went into her Starbucks at Red Arrow Park in downtown Milwaukee for her noon–7:30 pm work shift. The regular Starbucks location was undergoing renovations, so Brandmeyer and her co-workers reported to a temporary trailer in the park where Starbucks set up shop. Brandmeyer had no idea that during her shift she was going to witness firsthand the fatal shooting of Dontre Hamilton by a local police officer.
Hamilton and my mother share something in common: they both were diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is one of America’s most misunderstood diseases, yet many people harbor certain negative attitudes and beliefs toward this specific mental illness. Without reading any further, some readers may already devalue Hamilton’s life and believe he somehow deserved to die. Whether intentional or unintentional, the stigma of mental illness is often discriminatory. We have a responsibility to protect the mentally ill in our society, but we often marginalize and dehumanize those that need our help the most.
According to Brandmeyer, her fellow baristas called the police on Hamilton because he was sleeping next to the arrow sculpture in the park. Later on, she would discover that Hamilton was waiting on a ride home from his brother. Two police officers responded to the Starbucks employees’ call. They spoke with Hamilton, decided he wasn’t doing anything illegal, and left the scene. A little while later, Starbucks baristas called the police again and the same two officers responded to the call. For a second time, they spoke with Hamilton and determined nothing was wrong. Brandmeyer further states:
About five or so minutes later, the same two officers approached our trailer café and asked if we were the ones calling them. My coworker informed them that it was them who called, and that they were worried about the presence of Dontre so close to our café, condiment bar, and the possible negative impact on the business. The officers informed them that Dontre was doing nothing illegal, there was nothing for them to enforce, and that we should stop calling.
Some readers may believe that because Hamilton was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia he should have already been civilly committed, locked up, or isolated from society. Perhaps this was another case where a young black male failed to establish his unfair, sanctioned, and often cosigned burden of proof that he is not dangerous to society. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
[Milwaukee police officer Christopher] Manney shot Hamilton fourteen times on April 30 during a confrontation at Red Arrow Park. Before the encounter, a pair of officers responding to a call that Hamilton was asleep in the park checked on him twice and found he was doing nothing wrong. When Manney arrived, he was not aware that other officers had preceded him.
As Manney began to pat down Hamilton, Hamilton fought him, and a confrontation ensued. Manney tried to use his baton to subdue Hamilton, but Hamilton got control of it and swung at Manney, hitting him on the side of the neck, according to Milwaukee police internal affairs. Manney then shot Hamilton repeatedly.
According to Manney, when he patted Hamilton down “he felt a hard cylindrical object in Hamilton’s waist band and another hard object in Hamilton’s pocket.” As noted in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “Manney said he thought Hamilton was growing stronger, reaching the point of ‘super human strength….’ Manney continued to fire until Hamilton fell to the pavement; he recalled it was as if he was ‘shooting a BB gun.’” No weapons were found on Hamilton.
In October, Police Chief Edward Flynn noted that Manney correctly identified Hamilton as mentally ill, but ignored department policy and treated him as a criminal by frisking him. “You don’t go hands-on and start frisking somebody only because they appear to be mentally ill,” Flynn stated when he announced Manney’s termination. The Milwaukee Police Association condemned the termination and members voted no confidence in the chief after his decision.
In December, Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm announced that Manney’s use of force was justified. The DA determined that Manney’s use of fourteen bullets was an act of self-defense. If you were the DA, would you seek to criminally charge Manney? What would be your legal argument?
In response to the DA’s announcement, the ACLU of Wisconsin stated, “If Officer Christopher Manney did not violate the law, then is anyone legally responsible for Mr. Hamilton’s death? Does the criminal law protect individuals like Mr. Hamilton from deadly force exercised by police officers? Are police officers above the law?”
The truth is the majority of police officers are prudently doing their jobs and serving their communities. Unfortunately, every profession has a few bad actors, and local police organizations are not exempt. Before Eric Garner in New York City, Michael Brown in Ferguson, and Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Dontre Hamilton was handed his fatal verdict prematurely by an officer of the law in Milwaukee.
Martin Luther King Jr. believed it was necessary to dramatize an issue because many people are not aware of what is happening. His goal was to dramatize an issue so it can no longer be ignored.
Starbucks had a front-row seat to this fourteen-shot tragedy. Starbucks employees like Kelly Brandmeyer witnessed firsthand the killing of Dontre Hamilton. Maybe because Hamilton was mentally ill, his case didn’t attract as much national attention as other similar cases have commanded over the last year. But I’d argue it was Starbucks’s instigative role in Hamilton’s death and the subsequent protests in the Red Arrow Park Starbucks that ultimately triggered the company’s consciousness on race relations in America.
Soon after Hamilton’s death, Starbucks made a donation to a mental health organization. This month, Starbucks launched “Race Together” to spark the conversation about race relations in America. This week, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz met with Hamilton’s family.
In other news this week, on Sunday, Apple CEO Tim Cook spoke against pro-discrimination “religious freedom laws” across the country. On Monday, nine CEOs called for reform of the “religious freedom” law in Indiana. On Tuesday, Walmart’s CEO spoke against the “religious freedom” bill in its home state. One day later, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson announced he wouldn’t sign the “religious freedom” bill in its current form. Yesterday, Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed new revisions to Indiana’s “religious freedom” law and Governor Hutchinson did the same for the “religious freedom” law in Arkansas.
This week, corporations displayed how they could merge business interests and social responsibilities. These legal entities demonstrated just how much power they have to influence our society. Many people are still not aware of what is happening. But for those who have witnessed or experienced it firsthand, discrimination can no longer be ignored.
Hamilton’s death revealed just how much a single Starbucks location can affect race relations in an entire community. Starbucks witnessed firsthand what happens when there is a lack of empathy, compassion, and understanding in a community it serves. The deaths of Garner, Brown, and Rice have further dramatized the injustices and indignities of racial relations all over the nation. Ignorance is not a victimless crime.
The alternative to initiatives like “Race Together” is often the status quo. The status quo in our nation has often consisted of different degrees of discrimination. Discrimination in our companies, firms, communities, and law can no longer be ignored. It is time to reframe the conversation around our responsibilities, instead of focusing just on our rights.
Racial diversity is the story of America, our triumphs as well as our faults. Yet racial inequality is not a topic we readily discuss. It is time to start. As Starbucks discovered last year, it can no longer be ignored. Read more…